Comparable but Not Identical: Buttigieg’s Experience in a Heteronormative America

By Lamplighter Staff

Looking at the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, Americans see dwindling racial diversity among them. Since the beginning of the race for 2020, the number of Democratic candidates of color has fallen steadily as they begin to drop out of the race. Voters seem to have mourned this loss; America is ready for a minority in the White House, but the probability is seemingly dwindling. However, it seems that the United States has forgotten one of the frontrunners in the polls: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana is the first openly gay presidential candidate. Many voters have regarded him as “just another white guy” in the race, but Buttigieg’s experience as a gay man in the US has given him a unique perspective in the race for the presidency. 

Image courtesy of peteforamerica.com

In a recent debate, Buttigieg tried to connect with minority voters, saying, “While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate.” He continued, declaring that his “obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.” Buttigieg faced significant backlash for his comments, with many claiming that he had tried to equate the experiences of gay Americans with African Americans. However, he was careful with his wording, and he made a valid statement comparing the history of oppression that both groups have faced. Since the nascent years of the civil rights and gay rights movements, there have been significant parallels in their progression towards equality. 

In the first half of the twentieth century, the similarities between the oppression of LGBTQ+ Americans and that of African Americans were astoundingly similar. Throughout the Jim Crow South, violence against black Americans was rampant, and law enforcement largely turned a blind eye to it. Similarly, gay Americans in the mid-twentieth century faced similar  treatment from law enforcement and government. In Making History: the Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, Herb Donaldson recalls his life as a young gay man in the ’60s, describing the police invasion of a gay club he was once at: “I remember a couple of women [there] who were schoolteachers… They were terrified that somehow the state Board of Education would get the pictures and move against them.” If a schoolteacher was found to be homosexual, their teaching license would be revoked because their personal life was indicative of an “improper moral standard.” This underlying fear is representative of the American system’s failure to protect the livlihood of queer people. Additionally, gay Americans were specifically legally targeted by sodomy laws. These laws restricted sexual contact between consenting adults if they were of the same sex, with many states criminalizing it. According to the ACLU, Illinois was the first state to decriminalize homosexual contact in 1961. While Illinois was early in amending their laws, many states, specifically in the south, recognized sodomy as a criminal offense until the end of the 1900s. Not only was homosexuality found morally repulsive by the majority of Americans, but it was specifically targeted legally, too. 

Not only did gay Americans struggle to exist under US law, but American cultural prejudice meant it was impossible for queer people to live authentically while leading a successful career and social life. In The Rabble Rousers, Kay Lushen recalls when her lover called off their relationship in the 1950’s, stating that “she wanted to be Miss Wonderful in the larger community. She wanted to be looked up to, and she couldn’t be if she was a lousy lesbian.”  Much like how African Americans have historically struggled to rise out of systemic poverty into positions of power, many gay Americans had to choose whether they wanted to live their authentic lives or find long term career success. However, this is also a key difference between the two: LGBTQ+ Americans had the freedom to express their identity or not, while African Americans had no such option. Oliver Davis, a black city councilor from Mayor Pete’s home town, explained, “When someone is gay or a lesbian, unless they tell or they are seen in certain situations, then no one is going to know that. They are able to build their resumé and build their career.” While African-Americans and other people of color cannot hide that part of their identity, LGBTQ+ people are often able to conceal their identity to some degree, allowing them to find success without the burdens that may come with an openly queer identity. Mayor Pete himself did not come out to his constituents until after his election to office. 

Despite the obvious recognizable differences between the historical oppression of black and LGBTQ+ Americans, Mayor Pete’s comparison of the two was justifiable and valid, because there are obvious parallels between the two groups’ fights for equality over the last several decades. America has failed to recognize the severity of the oppression of its LGBTQ+ citizens. From violent hate crimes that still affect the community today, to legal opression (marriage equality was acheived only five years ago), to social inequality, the history of queer Americans is one of oppression and a fight for equality. The education system seems to have failed when it comes to bringing justice to the severity of the history; as a case in point, it took until my senior year in high school for the matter to be discussed in my history classes. Why hasn’t the gay rights movement been presented in classrooms as comparable to the activism around civil rights or women’s rights? 

While it would have been inappropriate for Buttigieg to equate the experiences of black people with those of gay people, he explicitly prefaced his point with an admission of his inability to relate completely with black voters. Instead, Mayor Pete made a valid connection between the history of systemic opression that both black and gay Americans have fought to overcome. His experience, while unique to him, has given him a perspective on life as an American minority that his straight, white counterparts don’t share, and this perspective may be valuable in the office of the presidency. 

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